Rebel fighters celebrate at the Mihrab roundabout in the Idlib city centre, after they took control of the area, March 28, 2015. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

Syrian rebels captured the key northern city of Idlib from government forces on Saturday in what amounts to the most significant defeat in two years for the forces loyal to President Bashar
al-Assad.

The rebel force, led by the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, surged into the city center overnight Saturday and by day’s end had ousted government forces almost entirely.

The loss for the government came amid a number of recent indications that the Assad regime is struggling to maintain the momentum it won on the battlefield last year, including the failure of two recent offensives that fizzled in the north and the south of the country.

The official Syrian news agency SANA indirectly acknowledged the defeat, reporting that government forces were regrouping to the south of the city to confront what it said were thousands of “terrorists” supported by Turkey.

The Turkish government has long offered support to most of the rebel forces crisscrossing its border in pursuit of its four-year-old quest to unseat Assad.

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Idlib is the capital of the northern province of Idlib, and it became only the second provincial capital in the country to fall to the rebels since the northeastern city of Raqqa was captured two years ago. Raqqa has since become the capital of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate, after the group ejected other rebels.

The capture of Idlib is likely to further empower different extremists in the northwestern part of Syria, where more moderate rebel groups had, until recently, held sway. The Islamic State does not have a presence there, but Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, played a leading role in the fighting alongside other rebel battalions.

“It was a Nusra-led operation with other groups involved,” said Rami Jarrah, an activist with the opposition Activist News Agency.

Many of the rebel fighters were local residents who escaped to the countryside to join the largely rural uprising against Assad in 2011, and had been shut out from the city ever since. A video posted on YouTube showed a fighter emotionally reuniting with his family for the first time in years. Others showed rebels moving through the city’s central square, its police headquarters, trampling over portraits of Assad and being greeted by residents pledging support for Nusra.

Jabhat al-Nusra has emerged as the dominant force in rebel-controlled areas of the province after defeating more moderate groups that had received U.S. aid in recent months. Its ascent has further complicated the launch of a program promised by President Obama to train and equip a force of moderate Syrian rebels to confront the Islamic State, which was first announced nine months ago but has not begun.

According to Turkish officials quoted by Reuters, the program, due to begin imminently, has encountered a new and unexplained delay attributed to the geographic “distance” between Turkey and America.

The capture of Idlib came after four days of fighting, following a rebel offensive launched on Tuesday. The government appeared to have made scant effort to defend the city, offering one of a number of recent indications that the four-year-old war is taking a toll, said Jeff White, a military analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Residents fearing air strikes by the forces of Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad, flee Idlib city after rebel fighters took control of the area, March 28, 2015. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

“It’s a significant defeat for the regime, and it’s going to challenge the regime’s strategy,” he said, pointing out that, until now, the government had seemed determined to hold onto all of the capitals of the country’s 14 provinces to demonstrate that its reach still extends throughout the country.

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